Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Leave Genealogy Out of It

A recent court case in New Jersey concerning same-sex marriage may not at first blush seem relevant to genealogy, but one citation should draw genealogists into the discussion.

In his concurring opinion, Judge Anthony J. Parillo cites Daniel Cere, the Director of the Institute for the Study of Marriage, Law, and Culture at McGill University, who argues for "the rich genealogical nature of heterosexual family ties." Setting aside the more contentious issues, is the implication of this phrase true? Do the children of heterosexual couples have a genealogical advantage?

One can certainly argue that same-sex marriage makes genealogy more complicated. Numbering systems and GEDCOM formats presuppose heterosexual marriages—try to enter a same-sex marriage into your favorite genealogy database program, and you'll likely earn a stern rebuke from the software. Of course, there have been other biases in these programs that have required modifications or work-arounds in the past, including biases toward the Western ordering of names (not all cultures place the surname last) and patrilineal descent.

Genealogy is, technically, the study of one's genetic descent—tracing one's genes from their sources. The child of a same-sex couple cannot trace her genetic descent through both parents. The same can be said of adopted children, step-children, and children conceived through donor-contributed sperm or eggs. All of these children are at a genealogical disadvantage, but only if we consider it advantageous to have regular contact with the people who share genes with us (an odd notion, I think).

In the real world, people are just as interested in their family history as in their genetic history. This is especially true when speaking of the recent generations of one's family. If I were adopted, I might want to trace the roots only of my adoptive parents. But if my great-grandfather's great-grandfather were adopted, I might want to trace only his birth family.

If we consider genealogy in the loose sense of "family history," a child need not be penalized for illegitimacy, adoption, or the sexes of her parents. As to the question whether "heterosexual family ties" possess a richer "genealogical nature" than those of same-sex couples, we must ask why having two patrilineal or two matrilineal lines is any less interesting than having one of each.

Whatever we think of their parents, every child has a family worth investigating.

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